A Crowded House, or Where Do I Put All Those Planets

For those old-timers like me who may wander in here, the title of this post should bring back fond memories of William Conrad’s narrated taglines to the animated Rocky and Bullwinkle episodes, which invariably went “Be here next time, when . . . ” followed by a tongue-in-cheek pair of amusing but not always obviously connected non sequiturs.

The subject here is the dichotomy between the focus of traditional (as in classical Greek and Arabian) astrology on the seven original “planets” (Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn) and the preoccupation of modern astrology with integrating the so-called “modern” planets, Neptune, Uranus and Pluto (forget about the asteroids and the more recent discoveries and assumptions of astronomers about the Solar System). This also spills over into any method of esoteric inquiry that relies on astrological correspondences as an integral part of its structure, notably the “occult” tarot and Hermetic qabalism.

As a recent convert to traditional astrological methods after four decades as an inclusive psychological astrologer, I’m in a position to weigh the relative merits of each and attempt to reconcile them to my own satisfaction. The traditional approach to planetary rulerships and essential dignities was elegant and convincing; it covered everything from events to character analysis economically and thoroughly. It existed for millennia in a kind of “Goldilocks zone” where everything fit together neatly and precisely, with no wasted motion, supported by many centuries of observation and adjustment. At present, astrologers seem to have fallen prey to what I call the “Everest effect:” why must we admit the newer planets into the clubhouse? “Because they’re there, of course.” I take a different tack; “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” In historical terms, these interlopers are still “wet behind the ears,” with at most a couple of hundred years of critical observation under their collective belt. Despite the vociferous insistence of the Jungian branch of modern astrology, their practical interpretation really must be considered provisional.

But my goal here isn’t to defend one approach over the other, it’s to explore how they are used in related disciplines. The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, just prior to the turn of the 20th Century, created what would become the most influential system of esoteric correspondences ever proposed, for both the tarot and the qabalistic Tree of Life. Although Neptune and Uranus had been discovered by that time, the Golden Dawn system stayed with the Chaldean (Babylonian) scheme of seven classically recognized planets and the 36 “decanates” (or decans) into which their influence had been partitioned by the ancients. The decans were correlated with the 40 minor cards of the tarot (with some minor adjustment), while the 4 elements (Fire, Water, Air and Earth), the 12 zodiacal signs and the 7 planets were variously apportioned among the 16 court cards and the 22 trump cards (again with a bit of metaphysical fine-tuning).

The Tree of Life (ToL), an essential part of the Hebrew Kabbalah that was adopted by the Hermeticists, received a similar treatment. The 32 “paths” of the ToL (the 10 Sephiroth and the 22 interconnecting channels for the flow of energy between them), received traditional astrological associations, both directly in the case of the Sephiroth and indirectly for the adjoining paths via assignment of the “infused” trump cards. This system worked well enough and has in fact endured into the present (although not without some grumbling from revisionists).

However, the conundrum of what to do with the more recently-discovered planets (made more pressing by the revitalized “Everest effect” attending the discovery of Pluto in 1939), was on the minds of some esoteric thinkers, among them Aleister Crowley. A number of stabs were made at shoehorning them into both systems, but agreement has been hard to come by. In the case of tarot, Neptune seemed to be an obvious choice for the Hanged Man because that trump was originally assigned the primary element of Water, and there are no planets more “oceanic” than Neptune (the Moon already being taken). But Uranus and Pluto were something of a toss-up. Consensus opinion finally settled on Uranus (considered an “airy” planet due to its modern rulership of Aquarius) belonging with the Fool (formerly elemental Air) and Pluto (considered “fiery” because of its mythological connection to the the Underworld) aligning best with Judgement, previously the home of elemental Fire. Although I personally stay with the elemental correspondences for these three cards and don’t adopt the modern planets in my interpretation, I’m reasonably comfortable with the arrangement (actually, I do like Uranus with Judgement instead because the mythological Titan was the father of Saturn, making a rather neat segue between the 21st trump and the next one, the Saturn-ruled Universe or World card).

When it comes to updating the planetary correspondences on the ToL, I have a slightly different perspective. I never really agreed with Crowley on the outer-planet assignments. I like Neptune for Da’at for obvious reasons, and Pluto for Keter (the occult “sun behind the Sun”) because I see it as a kind of counterpart to Mercury: a “cosmic messenger” that goes to the fringes of the (known) Solar System and back on its elliptical orbit, bringing external insights from the larger Universe. Uranus, as the planet of astrology, I place in Chokma as a substitute for the Wheel of the Zodiac, which seems to make perfect sense to me. I find this the most pleasing and defensible arrangement.

For all practical purposes, though, I find the modern planets largely unnecessary to my practice of either astrology or tarot, although they do make for some interesting philosophical food for thought in a qabalistic sense. Call me a throwback, but maybe if we could see them from the surface of the Earth with the naked eye, I might find a reason to invite them to the party. After all, astrology was originally an observational art and nascent science based on direct perception, not the province of telescopes and computers.


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